Mastering the art of prepping meat is a must on the road to becoming a pitmaster. Ensuring meat is cooked perfectly every time is an impressive skill, whether you’re searing a steak or roasting a whole turkey. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to prepare meat like a pro. From delicious rubs to skillfully aging beef, you’ll be able to impress with the best cooked meat anyone has tasted.
The Dos and Don’ts of Prepping Meat
1. Don’t Rinse Meat Before Cooking
A lot of people wash meat or rinse it before cooking but it’s not needed. In fact, doing this can actually spread bacteria around the sink and kitchen. All bacteria will be killed during cooking, so there’s no need to risk cross-contamination by rinsing it in water.
2. Don’t Soak Meat in Salt Water
Some people soak meat in salt water in an effort to make them juicier when cooking. However, this can drastically up the salt content of the meat, making it unhealthy. Instead, buy high-quality cuts of meat which won’t dry out during cooking. If you do want to soak the meat, make sure to do it in the fridge to keep the meat at a safe temperature.
3. Don’t Reuse Cooking Utensils
If you use a fork or spatula to handle raw meat or knife and board for slicing, do not reuse it before washing with hot water. This will increase chances of cross-contamination. It’s best to have a set of utensils for raw meat and a completely separate set for cooked meat to be safe.
4. Do wash your hands
Washing your hands after handling raw meat is a necessity to stop bacteria from spreading. After handling meat, wash your hands with warm soapy water for twenty seconds before handling anything else.
5. Do Throw Away All Packaging
Any packaging that carried raw meat should be rinsed and thrown away or recycled if possible. Never wash these and reuse them – even after washing they are a cross-contamination risk.
Meat Preparation Techniques
There are three ways to thaw your meat safely: in cold water, the fridge or using a microwave.
You’ll have to plan ahead when thawing because large pieces of meat can take a long time to defrost and different methods take longer than others.
Even the temperature setting on your fridge can affect the time it takes to thaw a piece of meat. So let’s take a look at the different methods to figure out which best suits your needs:
1. In the Refrigerator
This method takes the longest but because the meat is constantly chilled, you can keep the thawed meat for longer.
Seafood and poultry will last a day or two while red meat cuts will last a couple of days longer again.
2. In Cold Water
This method can be quicker, but you need to take more care with it. The meat should be in a sealed bag to make sure the water doesn’t get in.
The sealed bag is then submerged in cold tap water which should be changed every half hour.
Meat thawed using cold water needs to be cooked immediately after thawing and never refrozen.
3. Microwave Thawing
This is the quickest method to thaw food. The catch is the meat will need to be cooked immediately after thawing because it will have partially cooked in the thawing process and can be dangerous to leave in optimal bacterial growth temperatures.
Never freeze meat after thawing in the microwave, that’s just asking for trouble.
Methods of Tenderizing Meat
Now you’ve thawed your meat, it’s time to get it nice and tender. Here are some pro methods of tenderizing meat to prep if for cooking:
Using a mallet to tenderize meat is an effective method but runs the risk of damaging the meat. Instead, use more delicate tenderizers that have special needles to pierce the meat without damaging the flesh as much as a mallet.
2. Marinating with Acid
Soaking meat in a marinade that contains natural acids can help to break down tough meat. Lemon or lime juice, vinegar and even yogurt are effective at this.
However, don’t leave meat like this for too long as it can turn mushy. Half an hour to two hours is plenty depending on the size of the meat.
3. Marinate with Enzymes
There are a surprising number of fruits that contain enzymes capable of tenderizing meat. These include Papaya, kiwi and pineapple. Pureeing fruits is a quick way of making a marinade that will make the meat tender.
Quick tip: Pineapple can break down meat quickly so keep a close eye when using this fruit.
Letting meat sit in salt for an hour or two will help soften tough meat. Just rinse the salt off and cook as normal if you don’t want to waste time with marinating.
Methods of Seasoning Your Meat
Next up, it’s time to season the meat to take it to the next level.
1. Dry Brining
This is a simple and effective way of seasoning meat. It essentially involves rubbing the meat with salt and letting it sit in the fridge for a period of time.
Dry brining is great because the salt enhances the flavor while allowing the meat to hold on to moisture. It gives similar results to wet brining but takes a lot less salt since it’s not diluted.
Benefits of Dry Brining
- 1It helps to add flavor while keeping in moisture.
- 2Takes up less space in the fridge than wet brining does.
- 3It uses less salt than wet brining.
- 4You won’t lose any of the fats and juices from the meat.
- 5The meat will not become soggy.
What types of meat should you dry brine?
It’s possible to dry brine almost any kind of meat. Poultry, fish, pork, lamb and beef can all benefit from the salt.
Some may tell you red meat should not be dry brined. This is a matter of opinion and you should try it yourself – we’re all for it when done right.
Quick tip: dry brining won’t work on already salted meats such as kosher ones.
Step by step instructions for dry brining
While all meats can benefit, meats such as turkey and chicken that can become dry when cooked benefit most from dry brining. Here’s how to dry brine poultry:
1. Pat the bird dry
Use paper towels to make sure the bird is dry. Even if you have washed the meat (which isn’t needed) it needs to be dried.
2. Salt the Bird
It will take a lot to over salt the meat so liberally sprinkle salt over the bird. Half a teaspoon per pound of meat is a good ratio. Work the salt into the skin using your fingertips making sure to get an even coverage. You can use any type of salt but medium grit such as sea or kosher salt works best.
3. Put it in the Fridge
Leave the bird to sit in the fridge for a minimum of two hours up to 24 hours (the longer the better). This will dry out the skin and keep the moisture inside ensuring a crispy skin and juicy meat full of flavor.
4. Cook the bird
Finally, cook the bird however you like for a juicy, delicious result.
What kind of salt should I use?
As mentioned, a grittier salt works better. It’s easier to control the amount you are using and avoid it becoming too salty. If you want to use table salt, reduce the amount you use. The finer grains will make it much saltier.
If you plan to add other flavors, do so just before cooking. Be wary if the rub or marinade has salt in too as this can overpower the flavor.
2. Wet Brining
This process is similar to dry brining but uses salted water to brine the meat instead of dry salt.
What Kind of Meat Can You Wet Brine?
You can brine just about anything, but meats such as turkey and fish really benefit from wet brining and will deliver the best results. If you are into smoking meat, brining things like ribs will make them taste fantastic.
However, as with dry brining, you shouldn’t wet brine already salted meat.
Type of Salt to Use For Wet Brining
Most salts will work fine for brining, but salt with iodine can affect the flavor. Many people like to use kosher salt but using ordinary table salt is just as good. Just remember there is a difference in grain size.
What Else Goes In Brine?
All you really need is salt and water but you can alter the flavor profile with:
- Citrus fruit slices
- Bay leaves
How Long Should I Brine My Meat?
If you don’t leave the meat in the brine long enough, the brine won’t have time to enter the meat properly, especially with poultry. However, brining for too long can break down the proteins in the meat and leave it mushy.
As a result, there is no hard and fast rule but an hour per pound is a good rough guide.
Step-by-Step Instructions For Wet Brining
1. Prepare your container
You will need a clean, non-reactive container that will fit the meat and the brine. You may also need to use something to keep the meat submerged.
2. Measure the water
Submerge a packaged piece of meat and remove to see how much water is needed, add 2-3 cups for poultry cavities.
3. Get your salt ready
One cup of table salt per gallon will be fine, or one tablespoon per cup of water. For larger grain salt you will want 10 ounces per gallon. This will work for all meats.
4. Prepare other ingredients
If you plan to add anything else, now is the time.
5. Heat the water
For the best results, you want the salt to dissolve in the water. Therefore, you will need to heat the water but don’t boil it. Add the salt and any sugar you are using to the water. Stir it until you can no longer hear or feel any salt left. Once dissolved you can add any other ingredients.
Step 6: Cool the water
Cool the water down so that it does not start cooking the meat.
Step 7: Add the meat
Once the water is cooled, add the meat to the brine. Make sure it stays submerged and pin down if needed.
Step 8: Cover and chill
Seal the container and put it in the fridge to keep it cool. Now you can sit back, relax and let the brine get to work.
Step 9: Remove the meat from the brine
When it’s ready, remove the meat and rinse the brine off, patting it down to dry. Now you’re ready to cook!
Rubs are a mix of seasoning and flavors that are applied to the outside of the meat before it’s cooked. They can be wet or dry and, like brines, can be salty or sweet at their base elements.
Can I Use Rubs When Grilling?
Grilling is a fast method of cooking; barbecuing is a slow one. As a result, grilling is not really suitable for rubs because they will burn rather than flavor the meat. Therefore, it’s best to use rubs, wet or dry, on a lower temperature style of cooking like barbeque or smoking.
Flavoring Ingredients in Rubs
Salt and sugar are the main base ingredients, others often include garlic and onion powders, cumin, oregano, paprika and chili. The final two giving good colors to the rub.
In general, a good rub will combine equal parts (by weight) of salt, black pepper, sugar, chili powder (including paprika and chipotle powder) and aromatics (such as garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, oregano, mustard powder).
Wet vs. Dry Rubs
Whichever you decide to use will come down to the flavor profiles you’re aiming for. Some ingredients can’t lend their flavors to a dry rub such as Worcestershire sauce or vinegar.
Liquids will evaporate and leave behind the flavors which dissolve into the meat. However, oil-based wet rubs don’t evaporate and the flavors don’t dissolve either, so the oil acts as a glue. This has an impact the flavor intensity so make sure you know which ingredients work best for the type of rub you’re planning to use.
Advantages of Rubs
- They add flavor and aroma to the meat before cooking that is easily imparted during the cooking process.
- Depending on the choice of seasoning, they will add color to meat as well, which is especially good when cooking at low temperatures when the meat doesn’t naturally color.
- They add a characterful crust to the meat that can’t be achieved in other ways at low temperature cooking.
Sugar is the main compound of most BBQ dry rubs. It is used for two great reasons:
- Sugar caramelizes during cooking giving a wonderful crust to the meat.
- It adds sweetness to balance other flavors in the rub.
This is why it is such a versatile ingredient in dry rubs.
Equally as important as sugar, salt fulfills a role as a natural flavor enhancer. It helps to elevate the natural meat flavors as well as the other flavors in the rub. Smoked salt can give another flavor profile again.
Onion and garlic powder (if you prefer fresh you can use a garlic press) are excellent to use in dry rubs as they are just that – dry. They add aroma and flavor in a consistent way just like chopped or crushed fresh varieties, which makes them a must.
Finally, you will want some form of spice in your rubs. Whether that is a curry spice, a herby one or something like paprika, they give flavor and color to the rub and then to the meat.
4. Dry Aging
Dry aging’s primary aim is to intensify the flavor of the meat, while also adding some tenderness. By reducing moisture and promoting slight bacterial growth to increase the flavor, it makes beef taste amazing.
Why dry-aged beef tastes better
All fresh beef is allowed to age for some period of time, whether it’s a couple of days or a few weeks. This allows enzymes to naturally break down the tissue and leave it more tender and flavorful.
Most beef is aged in shrink wrap these days, but real dry aging needs to be done with the meat exposed to air. This is more expensive, and you lose a part of the meat that has dried out but the flavor is greatly intensified.
How to dry-age beef at home
- Buy a prime boneless beef rib or loin from a reputable butcher in your area.
- Rinse the beef and dry by patting with paper towels. Don’t trim the meat but wrap in loose layers of cheesecloth. Place on a rack over a baking tray.
- Refrigerate the beef for several days to a week. The longer you leave it, the tastier the beef will be. Once you’re done, remove the cloth carefully to avoid the meat fibers sticking.
- Once ready to roast, shave off and discard the hard, dried outer layer of the meat leaving as much good fat as possible.
Types of Meat to Dry Age at Home
While it is possible to age individual cuts of steak, it would be a huge waste of money to do so as the meat will shrink and you will have to shave off part as well.
What is good for aging is whole muscles. A bone-in slab of ribeye or a strip loin will age perfectly. Any meat with a bone in will age really well and reduce the amount of waste lost during the process as just the bone needs to be cut away.
The quality of the meat will play a big factor as well. You want to have a nice amount of fat marbling in the meat. Steer clear of lean or low-fat cuts such as rounds.
This is because fat equals flavor and so lean choices don’t cut it.
Other cuts like beef ribs or brisket are fine for you to experiment with. But remember that you are going to have to trim the rind off so they need to be fairly large in size if you are going to attempt to dry age them without being left with a small piece of meat left at the end of the process.
How Long Should You Age Meat For?
While dry aging can aid tenderness, it’s usually done to intensify the flavor of the beef. After 28 days, the meat will be as tender as it will get, which is why many butchers and restaurants promote their steak as 28 days matured.
What happens after this is that the nutty flavor will intensify from the controlled decomposition.
The length will therefore depend on the type of cut of beef you are using. Generally, it will take at least 30 days to notice any dry age flavor. But realistically, you are looking at 60-80 days to really get a great, intense flavor.
With practice, you’ll know your set up and get used to how long different sizes and types of beef take for the best results.
You will also have to weigh up the loss over gain element. The longer it is left to age, the better the flavor but the more meat will be lost as rind that needs to be trimmed off. There comes a point where you are losing too much for the flavor imparted.
Experimentation is the name of the game here. Try out different timings to see what you find most tasty.
The Dry Aging Set UpThe Fridge
You will need a dedicated fridge if you are going to undertake dry aging. This means not storing anything you are not dry aging in this fridge.
Using your normal fridge can lead to cross contamination and leaking of flavor profiles which can be found in the fat.
As a starter, an 8.6 cubic feet fridge will see you good. This will give you enough room to age a few pieces but not be too much to manage nor leave you without enough room.
Find a fridge that has wire shelves instead of solid glass ones that are more prevalent these days. This will allow for airflow around the fridge.
One beneficial but not mandatory feature is to have a glass door as it allows you to look into the fridge without having to open the door. It also looks awesome to boot.
Airflow is a vital part of the dry aging process. So ensuring you set up the fridge for optimal airflow is necessary.
The good news is it’s cheap and easy to make sure this is done.
A standalone fan in the fridge is the easiest option and you can get ones with 360-degree swivel. Placing one on an easy to clean tray will help if any meat drips on it. Run the cord out the front of the fridge and ensure it sits flat with the seal. Simple!
75-85% is the range to aim for. Too much will lead to spoilage of the meat. Too little and excess shrinkage of the meat can occur as the meat dries too quickly. This will also affect the integrity of the structure of the meat too.
If you struggling to get above the optimal range, then a salt block placed in the fridge can be the solution you are after. This can also act as an air purifier that controls unwanted bacteria.
The fridge needs to be set between 29f and 40f. Mid to high thirties is a good place to be though. This will counter any minor inconsistencies with the thermostat reading.
Even if your fridge has an LCD temperature display, invest in a stand-alone thermometer too, just to make sure things are running as they should be.
Anything over 40f is going to lead to faster oxidation and spoilage. Anything below 29f will increase the time significantly.
Proper Preparation & Cooking Of Dry Aged Meat
There are two factors that play a role in knowing when the meat is ready to eat. These are palatability and food safety.
This is how well the food can be enjoyed. Does it taste good and does it feel good in my mouth? If you set your aging up properly, then there should be no spoilage, so the only thing that is going to affect the palatability is the rind you shave off.
This is the hard outer shell of the aged meat and it will not soften during cooking so trimming properly is a must.
There’s no point going through all this to spoil the final product.
Once you have trimmed the hard rind off you may notice that some of the meat is brown in color. This will usually just be oxidization of the meat and as long as it does not feel hard it won’t impact the texture or taste, even if it doesn’t look that appealing.
There is a chance discoloration is not a part of oxidation. This is a more concerning issue as it could be an air pocket that has held onto some mold. You should be able to tell which is which using smell and touch. But if in doubt, take it off. No one wants food poisoning!
This is the second factor to think about when determining if your meat is ready.
When cooking a steak or other meat, the only part of the meat that comes into contact with the hot surface is the outer part of the meat and the high heat will kill any bacteria here.
The middle is safe to keep rare if you want as it is in a sterile environment that has never had bacteria introduced.
As such, making sure the outside is treated properly is vital.
This is why it’s better to cut meat off the bone before you cook it because even if you can get the bone close to the heat, you will not be able to heat it sufficiently to kill all the bacteria it could be harboring.
If you really want to serve the meat on the bone, the best bet is to remove the bone from the meat, cook the meat on the grill, oven the bone at a high temperature and replace to serve.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Dry Aging At Home
DO NOT use a fridge that is used for other storage
Even if it is things in sealed containers such as beer. This is not only to avoid contamination but to limit the number of times the fridge door is opened, and external air is allowed to enter the fridge.
Domestic fridges can also often be warmer than a dedicated aging fridge and alter the process and lead to spoilage or shrinkage.
DO know the difference between something that is a little funky and something that has been spoiled
This will be common sense for the most part but you will have to get used to the smell of a heavily aged steak and a rancid one.
One will seem different but not wholly unpleasant and the other will likely trigger your gag reflex. Do not eat the second one.
DO NOT use your aging fridge to store anything but meat you are specifically dry aging
You are aiming to develop a delicate ecosystem of aging and introducing even other meats that you don’t intend to age can spoil the balance quickly and lead to wastage and lost money.
There can be cross contamination of bacteria but also of flavors that you did not intend to introduce. So keep it simple and get a dedicated fridge.
DO use large, whole muscles that can be trimmed back easily
Not small cuts that you’ll lose most of between shrinkage and trimming.
DO NOT be tempted to season the meat before you begin the aging process
Nor try to rinse or wash the steak after aging. Salt or other seasons can be added at the time of cooking.
Preparing and Cooking Dry-Aged Meat
Below you will find a quick and easy 7 step process for dry aging to get started:
- If your dry-aged steak is frozen, thaw it slowly using a fridge, do not skip time on this. Then remove it from the fridge an hour before cooking to allow it to get to room temperature.
- Wait until it’s about to enter the pan or grill to season your steak. If you apply seasoning like salt too soon, it will pull any remaining moisture out of the steak.
When the surface of the meat gets wet it will become difficult to sear and properly seal the steak. You can be liberal with the seasoning when you apply it, as some will come off in the cooking process.
- Quickly sear both sides of the meat with a high heat this will caramelize the surfaces and, more importantly, kill any bacteria harboring there. Searing in a pan before the grill will avoid any excessive charcoal flavor.
- Once the steak is suitably seared, transfer the steak to a lower temperature to continue cooking or move it to an indirect heat if necessary. If you are using a grill, try to only build the fire on one side to allow for this later.
- Use tongs to move and turn your steak. This is because other tools such as a fork will puncture the steak, both breaking the sear and allowing the juices and flavor to escape the steak you prepped for so long.
- Use a meat thermometer to determine if the steak is cooked how you want it. To use the thermometer, insert it into the center of the steak and leave it there until the core reaches the temperature you are looking for and is ready to serve.
- Finally and perhaps most importantly, allow the steak to rest on a warm, almost too hot to touch plate. You need to rest the steak for at least five minutes in this way.
This is an important, but all too often ignored step.
By resting the steak you allow the juices to redistribute around the meat and avoid all the juices leaving the meat as soon as you cut it.